Can a Swedish librarian find happiness with a man who owns a manure-spreader, or is he just shoveling — ?
Benny & Shrimp. By Katarina Mazetti. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death. Penguin / Pam Dorman. 221 pp., $14, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
This frothy romantic comedy is a Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with Swedish meatballs. Benny Söderström is an unmarried dairy farmer who owns a manure-spreader and boasts, “If you’ve read one book, you’ve read them all, and I read one last year!” Desirée Wallin is a widowed librarian who likes modernist furniture and talking about the literary theories of Jacques Lacan. The two lovelorn Swedes, both in early middle-age, meet at a cemetery where Benny visits his mother’s grave and Desirée her husband’s. And if you can’t see where this novel is going by the end of the first chapter, you’re probably still shocked that Julia Roberts got together with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.
But like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Benny & Shrimp makes use of an interesting narrative device: Katarina Mazetti tells her story not in letters but in chapters narrated antiphonally by Benny and “Shrimp,” the farmer’s nickname for Desirée. And Mazetti invests her tale with enough wit and vitality to offset some of the contrivances of her plot. Benny might refer to Rigoletto as “that fatso with the sword” after Shrimp tries to couth him up by giving him opera tickets. But you have to admire an unmarried man who, when he opens his refrigerator, has the integrity to admit the truth: “There were things in there that probably could have walked out on their own.”
Best line: “You could lobotomize him with the power saw and nobody would notice the difference.”
Worst line: It’s hard to imagine a Swedish farmer saying, even in translation, “Blimey” and “not bloody likely!”
Published: August 2008
Reading group guide: Penguin has posted discussion questions that include comments by Mazetti.
Caveat lector: This book was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.
Furthermore: Mazetti is a Swedish radio producer and author of books for children and adults. Benny & Shrimp was a bestseller and inspired a movie in Sweden. And yes, this novel about people who meet in a cemetery was translated by “Sarah Death.”